WATCH: Man vs. mammal, commercial herring fisherman films sea lion feeding frenzy
It’s the age old fight over who gets the fish, man or sea lion.
For commercial fisherman Allan Marsden, he’s fed up with the burgeoning sea lion population along the B.C. coast impeding his ability to do his job.
A fisherman for more than 40 years, Marsden feels the sea lion population has exploded over the past few years with this year being the worst he’s ever experienced. To show what he and others in the roe herring fishery face, Marsden shot a video on Monday that showed a large number of sea lions swarming his boat and fishing nets.
“If you weren’t actually there to see what happens, it’s almost to the point that you wouldn’t believe it,” Marsden told Global News.
“I would say about 10 years ago they were not a problem. But in the last two years they’ve just exploded. They’re all over the coast, they’re off-shore as well but with the herring, you can see there’s a lot of young [sea lions], so they’re multiplying every year.”
Roe herring are fished for their eggs and the fishery takes place as the herring gather to spawn. The window is short — late February to early March — for fishermen to make their quota and Marsden says this year they were unable to make their targets.
Marsden puts a lot of the onus on the sea lions.
“The sea lions keep the herring down so we can’t get at them. They just make it virtually impossible to put the gear in the water sometimes,” Marsden explains.
“Herring season is now done. They either spawned before we could get our quota or there have been too many sea lions to work around.”
Marsden says the sea lions have an uncanny sense for fishing vessels.
“The minute you start setting that net they come from everywhere. And when you see them coming, it’s as if you’re in a river and you’re in rapids. All you see is this white foam water coming at you,” he said.
This isn’t the first time commercial fishermen have raised concerns over sea lions along the B.C. coast. In February 2015, fishermen were saying the sea lion population was having an impact on herring stocks.
While Marsden and others feel the population of sea lions is “exploding,” according to the Department of Fisheries (DFP), the mammals have been steadily growing for 30 years or more and only recently hit a healthy number.
“The Steller sea lion, which is what we have up along the B.C. coast, for many years they seasonally come into the Georgia Strait to get herring,” Dr. John Ford with the DFO confirmed.
“… just like the fisherman do. But the number of sea lions hasn’t made any sharp increase in the last few years. It’s been steady.”
Ford says there are about 5,000 sea lions in the southern Vancouver Island area, where Marsden shot the video, and that the populations vary from location to location along the west coast of B.C.
“Overall, the population over the winter is almost 50,000 [sea lions] and they’re recovering from culling/predator control that took place for decades prior to 1970,” Ford said.
Since 1980, more than 80 per cent of the western Steller sea lion population disappeared. As a consequence, in 1997, some populations of the Steller sea lions in Alaska was listed as endangered.
“It was a federal fisheries program to reduce the population and now they’re re-establishing themselves as significant parts of the marine ecosystems along with others like sea otters and whales,” Ford says.
“Having them back to their historical abundance is a good thing for a healthy, normal marine ecosystem.”
Ford admits there’s a “natural concentration” of both fisherman and sea lions to target the same food, which can make it more difficult for the fisherman to navigate around the marine mammals.
Difficult is an understatement from Marsden’s point of view.
“I know of one business the damage to gear alone from sea lions — not looking at the cost of losing the fish — just gear damage… cost the business $100,000,” Marsden says.
WATCH: Sea Lions swarm herring boat